“You’re not my friend anymore!” yells Ashley as she storms away from her friend Bella and heads for the kitchen area of their preschool classroom. The girls were having a fight over sharing a favourite doll and Ashley didn’t like the outcome.
Even at this young age, Ashley knows the worst hurt you can bestow on another is social rejection. Children as young as 30-months old know this tactic.
The psychological term is known as relational aggression: intentionally hurting another person through the relationship. This can happen IRL or online and includes such things as name calling, teasing, rejection, exclusion, gossiping, hurting someone's reputation, giving the silent treatment and so on.
Like physical aggression, it can range from mild to severe. While physical aggression is more easily spotted and its levels of severity are pretty noticeable -- relational aggression is often not detected by parents and teachers. The psychological impact can have life-long repercussions. Increases in anxiety, depression and suicide have all been linked to this form of bullying.
While both boys and girls use relational and physical aggression, relational aggression seems to be much more common and damaging in girls. It seems that girls’ needs for tight community, strong social ties and intense connectivity with their peers is more profound than for boys. When this tie is broken, it can be devastating for girls.
So how did our little girls get to be so mean to one another? Sadly, we teach them.
Our families are the first social world that our children live in. They learn the rules for relating to others from the experiences they have at home. Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of our society’s move away from spanking (physical aggression) was to replace corporal punishment with relational aggression.
Listen to a week of anyone’s parenting and I am sure you will hear a few “go to your room right now, young lady,” “I am so disappointed,” “NO! Bad girl,” “You’re a brat,” “I am not talking to you,” “Just for that, I am cancelling your birthday party,” “You are ruining this family vacation for everyone.”
These parenting comments are common and so very hurtful. Children learn it’s powerful to hurt another human by these emotional cut offs and tear downs, so they replicate these tactics with their peers. These comments also erode our children’s self-esteem and their feelings of being lovable and worthy.
Now when they face the developmental task of building friendships, they feel more vulnerable and approach with trepidation. Do people like me? Will I make friends? Will I have social status in this clique? If they fear that another is challenging or eroding their ties to friends, they protect themselves by launching a relational attack on the the person they feel threatened by.
I remember that in Grade 7, I hung out with two other girls: Colette and Karen. Somehow though, the three of us couldn’t be friends at the same time. We always managed to pick a fight so one of us would be hurt and left to walk alone a few feet behind the other two all the way to school. We all got a turn walking behind each week. It seemed we didn’t have the emotional complexity to be a triad. After all, if you like her, you might not like me!
So what is the best advice a family therapist can offer?
Here’s your actionable list:
1. Pay attention so you begin to notice relational aggression.
2. Treat relational aggression as serious as physical aggression.
3. Supervise preschool play dates closely and explain that you will end the play date if people are not courteous to all. Calmly explain they can try again another time.
4. Learn new ways to correct your child’s behaviour without the use of relational aggression. Try natural consequences, logical consequences, problem solving and many, many more positive discipline techniques.
5. Develop your child’s empathy so they understand why being mean to others is not acceptable and offer up other pro-social ways to handle situations instead.
6. Help your child feel confident in their friendships by giving them lots of opportunities to make a variety of friends in school but also in extra-curricular activities and clubs.
7. Talk about what makes a good friend and describe good character traits. There are great family resources at Let It Ripple.
8. Model inclusivity and being non-judgmental. Don’t gossip.
9. Teach them the now famous Michelle Obama line: “When they go low, we go high” instead of tit for tat.
10. Remove tech privileges if they can’t act as good digital citizens.